Key takeaways

I grew up in the ‘80s and was the middle child of a busy couple who both had their own businesses. Mum would phone from wherever she was (she travelled a lot) and she would ask us to put the potatoes on the stove to boil, take the clothes off the line or set the table. “I’ll be home in 20 minutes!”. Upon a blustery entrance, one of the first things she would do is pour a gin and lemonade. Not long into the evening, you could find Mum asleep on the couch - exhausted after a very long day, gin nestled in on the floor next to her. 

On the weekends we often had people over, there were plenty of dinner parties, and lots of opportunities for social drinking. But it was the daily habit that had the greatest impression on me. The gin was the circuit breaker, the reward, the pleasure point of a long, exhausting day.

As an adult, I very much looked forward to the end of the day when I could savour those first few sips of alcohol, the slight warmth in my body, the easing of what tension had arisen through the day. It became a time of day that I really looked forward to. For a long time, I never even questioned if it felt like the right thing to do. I certainly wasn’t concerned that I was drinking too much or too often. My friends drank, as did my family and it was largely socially accepted (even encouraged). It wasn’t ‘that bad’ for me, I’d think. Sure, I’d wake feeling a little shabby - even after only one glass of wine, but I could shake it off and push through.

Earlier this year, I went to a health coaching conference. One of the speakers discussed a topic I had never heard of - grey area drinking. As she shared her story, and described the traits of a grey area drinker, you could see the faces in the room doing an audit on their own drinking behaviour - myself included. 

The presenter spoke about the impact grey area drinking had on her health, her family, and her professional performance - all pointing towards her overall life happiness (or lack thereof). She had a really successful career (but she knew she could perform much better). She had two small boys who she loved dearly but would sometimes drop off to school or kinder and need to crawl back home for a little hangover nap. She certainly looked fit and healthy, but she didn’t feel it. Of all that she shared, it was the guilt that stood out to me. It was obvious to her that drinking was getting in the way of the quality of the relationships she was having with her two small boys. They were ‘too noisy’ or wanted her attention, when all she wanted was peace and quiet. It was easier to distract them with a device than have to show up and be right with them.

The room of health coaches was quiet and transfixed. I was reflecting to myself; Surely a little bit of alcohol isn’t that bad? Surely I don’t have a ‘problem’? Everyone else is the same, aren’t we all just ‘normal’?

What is grey area drinking?

Let’s look at some of the traits of a grey area drinker, as there are some trends and typical behaviours that show up for these people.

  • You make rules or negotiations about when you’ll drink; ‘I’ll only drink on weekends, or through the week if it's a special occasion’ or ‘I only drink from Thursday to Sunday’ or ‘I only drink vodka because it’s the cleanest alcohol’
  • You might say you don’t have a drinking problem because you did Sober October or you don’t ‘neeed’ a drink every day. ‘I can stop any time I like’
  • You might use booze as a strategy for dealing with big emotions like stress, anger, loneliness or disappointment
  • You have alcohol whenever you're social - whether you’re out at a venue, at your place or visiting friends (heck I mostly drank at night even when I was home alone)
  • You might experience some guilt or shame around your drinking
  • Perhaps when you drink you end up in scenarios that are risky or endangering, like drink-driving or starting arguments with friends or family, or you might even have friends comment on your drinking behaviour

The Aussie drinking landscape

I believe that one of the societal problems with alcohol, here in Australia, is that many people only consider it a problem if someone is deemed alcoholic (or perhaps can’t function). Any other drinker, anywhere else on the drinking spectrum, is considered ‘fine’. We know that alcohol is toxic. We know how bad we can feel after a few drinks  and that the number of drinks you can ‘get away with’ slowly decreases with age. And yet…

There’s a weird thing that happens here, and possibly in other countries with an established drinking culture, where the person who isn’t drinking alcohol is pressured and made to feel like the odd one out. You become something of a social outcast and other people feel uncomfortable because you aren’t participating. 

For those who feel like they can really only loosen up and have fun after a few drinks, it might be a stretch to understand how someone else might freely kick up their heels in the absence of some alcoholic lubrication. 

For anyone who is on the fence about whether or not to drink, this social pressure can be just enough to keep them returning to the bar.

As a health coach, I have a philosophy around not making things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, I’m interested in cause and effect, introspection, learning and growth, and experimenting. What can I learn about alcohol and my body/health? What does alcohol mean to me?

What did grey area drinking look like for me?

Initially, after the conference and finding out about GAD, I decided that the best thing to do was quietly diagnose a few friends, and get on with things. By now I rarely drink anyway, and when I do it's not much. I didn’t really drink weekdays (but sometimes I did) and I didn’t drink that much (but when I did it was typically straight tequila). No problemo!

But I thought about drinking a lot more than I wanted to. 

There was an almost daily negotiation with myself about whether or not I’d have a drink after work. The idea of GAD was rattling around in the back of my mind. I could see myself in that, but the question was, 'does it matter?'. 

I knew that my sleep wasn’t great because I tracked my sleep data. When I woke I never felt refreshed, even after a full night’s sleep. 

My alcohol tolerance was low and if I’m being completely honest (and I am), I didn’t love who I was when I drank. I never got nasty or mean, but just didn’t feel like the greatest version of me and I’d often be unreasonably short tempered with my daughter. The only thing that arguably improved was my dancing…but even that’s questionable.

After a week off work, and drinking just a little bit every night, I had a major anxiety experience. It was the emotional slap in the face I needed to challenge my behaviour. 

As a coach, I decided to use this opportunity to learn. So, since 29 July 2022, I have been keeping a nightly diary of some health metrics to see how my body responds in the absence of booze. 

Here’s what the data says, so far, about my booze free experiment:

  • My heart rate variability (HRV) is steadily improving. I use an Oura Ring to monitor my HRV (which is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat - not to be confused with heartrate). Most of us are unaware of these subtle variations, but they reflect your heart’s ability to respond to different situations. Generally, higher HRV is associated with your parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for rest-and-digest functions, general fitness and good recovery). At the beginning of the experiment, I was averaging an HRV of 49 and it now averages around 55
  • The amount of deep sleep I’m getting each night is improving. I’ve moved from around 30 minutes, nightly, to approximately 1.5-2 hours
  • My waking alertness has improved and it’s easier to get going in the mornings
  • My daytime energy is better. While it still has room for improvement, my overall energy has improved by about 30% 
  • My recovery after exercise is much better 

One of the key wins has been that I can drive anywhere, any time! For me, the real win, though, is a psychological one; losing that afternoon period of negotiation. I no longer have to go into the internal debate club to see who comes out on top. This alone has given me a freedom I didn’t realise was taking up so much space. 

When is it time to question your relationship with alcohol? 

As with most things, your attitude and use of alcohol sits on a spectrum. It's common to defend our alcohol use because we enjoy it. Is it actually a problem to have a few drinks every now and then?

This conversation is really about the habits and behaviours associated with alcohol consumption. So whilst we don’t want to get caught in the weeds, we know that alcohol, even in low amounts, can have a negative health impact on:

  • Risky behaviour: With inhibitions lowered, people are more likely to participate in risky behaviour when drinking alcohol
  • Stomach health: Drinking even one to two standard drinks a day increases your risk of stomach and bowel cancer, as well as stomach ulcers
  • Cancer: The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks – particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time – the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer 
  • Sleep: People will often say that alcohol actually helps them sleep. As alcohol has sedative properties, you might fall asleep quickly. However, it is often the quality of your sleep and the amount of deep sleep/rapid eye movement (REM) sleep you can get that is impacted. The downstream outcome of this is excessive daytime sleepiness the following day. Furthermore, drinking to fall asleep can build a tolerance, forcing you to consume more alcohol each successive night in order to experience the sedative effects
  • Recovery/HRV: Poor sleep leads to poor recovery. I love tracking my heart rate variability as a way to determine my overall readiness. According to tracking device company Whoop, any amount of alcohol can drop your HRV and increase your resting heart rate. Both of those things reduce your ability to recover and be ready for exercise
  • Mood: Alcohol is a depressant. The cognitive  health effects of drinking alcohol may include mood changes, decreased inhibitions, relaxation, impaired judgment, slowed reaction times, difficulty remembering, confusion, and over time might lead to increased anxiety or even depression
  • General safety: When it comes to the brain, alcohol acts as a depressant to the central nervous system (CNS). Functions such as breathing, speech, thought, memory, and movement can be impacted by consuming alcohol
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): This term is used to describe the physical, cognitive, developmental and emotional impairments that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Any alcohol consumed during pregnancy can impact the health of the unborn baby and may not be obvious until the child is school-aged. There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink when pregnant

Just to be clear, the list above does not apply to binge drinkers, but to those with a modest, but ongoing consumption of alcohol. This is a pared back list of the impact of alcohol on health related to casual drinking. The list of health and wellbeing effects on those who consume larger amounts of alcohol (either by volume or frequency) is much greater.

What next?

I enjoy the taste, and sometimes the effects, of alcohol as much as the next health coach. But it's worth remembering, this is a known toxin that we are societally conditioned to accept and encourage. 

It is a socially acceptable drug and truthfully it can have a very meaningful impact on our health, even with just a tipple several days a week.

This all sounds like I’m a real party pooper. I get it. It's fun to have fun, wind down, and relax. In the future I will likely drink. But the big learning for me is the ongoing behaviour around alcohol that I wanted to challenge. I guess one way you could look at it is; the more resistance to the idea of not drinking you have, the more helpful it might be to explore your beliefs and behaviours around alcohol. 

The question I will leave you with is, 'does any of the above sound familiar to you?'. If you think you might be in the GAD camp with me, and if you’re on this site because your health isn’t all it could be, what role does alcohol play in that?

bee pennington health coach wearing teal dress standing smiling
Bee Pennington
Bee, an award-winning health coach at Melbourne Functional Medicine, specialises in mindset, emotional health, and maintaining healthy boundaries. Meditation and breathwork facilitator.
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Bee Pennington
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Have something to add, or want to ask
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{ "datePublished": "Oct 13, 2023" }